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Let’s Pause for A Moment of Silence for the VCR

It changed how we consume media forever, and now it’s gone. Sniff.

The VCR is dead. After a long battle with obsolescence, it went out quietly last month at age 60 when the Funai Corp. of Japan, “the last-known company still manufacturing the technology,” according to The New York Times, stopped production.

I heard about its impending passing a few weeks ago on MPR (Minnesota Public Radio) and then read a little more about it in The Times when a colleague forwarded me a link to the story.

The VCR made it possible to consume whatever media we wanted — when we wanted. And skip the commercials!

The VCR I have at home — a clunky silver box that spends most of its days collecting dust in my family room — is still kicking. But I know the end is near for this particular machine, too. It whines and whimpers when I put in one of the tapes I still occasionally pick up on free tables at garage sales and in church basements. Sometimes it eats them.

I used to curse at the machine when it did this. Now I shrug, toss the tape in the trash and look for something to watch on Amazon Prime.

The VCR: Back Button to the Future

Still, I remember the days when the VCR was in its prime — and it changed everything.  

Like many technologies, the VCR was around for a couple of decades before it became a common household appliance.

“In 1956, Ampex Electric and Manufacturing Company introduced what its website calls ‘the first practical videotape recorder. Fred Pfost, an Ampex engineer, described demonstrating the technology to CBS executives for the first time. Unbeknown to them, he had recorded a keynote speech delivered by a vice president at the network,” The Times reported in “The Long Final Goodbye of the VCR.”

The story quotes Pfost as saying, “After I rewound the tape and pushed the play button for this group of executives, they saw the instantaneous replay of the speech. There were about 10 seconds of total silence until they suddenly realized just what they were seeing on the 20 video monitors located around the room. Pandemonium broke out with wild clapping and cheering for five full minutes. This was the first time in history that a large group (outside of Ampex) had ever seen a high-quality, instantaneous replay of any event.”

Hitting the Rewind Button

By the 1980s, this magic box was a staple of American culture. The VCR made it possible to consume whatever media we wanted — when we wanted. And skip the commercials!

Thus, time-shifting was born, paving the way for the DVD, Tivo, Netflix, Amazon Prime, iTunes and all the podcasts to which I am currently addicted. It’s hard to imagine life before the VCR.

Thanks to the VCR, I spent countless teenage hours re-watching the funniest Saturday Night Live sketches as well as music videos my friends had recorded on MTV (cable TV wasn’t an option out in the country where I lived). And many more hours browsing aisles of video stores.

These days, those stores are gone. I no longer need my VCR. I’m slightly embarrassed that I still have a collection of VHS tapes.

Still, I’m sad to see it go.

So if you’ll bear with me, I’d like to suggest that we all pause to remember the wonder that was the VCR. A moment to be kind and rewind, if you will.   

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